What do Mr Bean, Rice Krispies, VHS and Edutainment have in common?

breakfast cereal

Imagine you are in the supermarket and you want to pick up a box of cereal. You find the aisle and see rows of different cereal in their seductive, brightly-coloured packets, some promise a healthy alternative, and some will offer a sugary hit. Which packet do you choose? Do you pick up every packet to help you make an informed choice or do you buy the same breakfast cereal you always get? You might try something new and you might be pleasantly surprised, but when faced with so much choice you’ll probably choose the the easiest option; the shortcut is to go with what you know, Rice Krispies.

Now imagine you could choose a language course. You go online to book it, there are lots of schools and courses on offer – there’s a school that promises to help you pass the IELTS test, there’s an academic writing course, a Business English course, English for Racehorse Enthusiasts – some have colourful titles, some promise a sugary treat or a healthy alternative, but what truly matters? How do students choose a course or a school, what informs their choice? Much like choosing anything in an over-saturated market, students may well get confused by all the possibilities and plump for the familiar, they will aggregate towards the mean and stay away from the fringes (imagine a bell curve here). Your best selling course – the intermediate general English class will surely be oversubscribed whereas your specialist English class, well that will be for the specialists.

In the supermarkets of the developed world we have an awful lot of choice, but have you ever wondered what happens to all that stuff that nobody wants – where does it go? If you ever get past the security guards and barbed wire fences at the back of the supermarket you’ll notice that huge amounts of food go out the back door on a daily basis. The flip side of choice, is waste. By the same token what happens to those language courses that nobody wants? In a world of “choice” and “flexible options” and courses designed to fit around your “busy” life, there are promises of shortcuts to language learning that will prove irresistible to many, and there will be some courses that nobody really wants, and they will go to waste. Now this might not be such a bad thing – in a truly free market, bad products die and good ones flourish, don’t they? But let’s remember what happened in the war between Betamax and VHS? The best doesn’t always win – but the most popular does.

It would be nice to think that consumers make informed choices, that they read the packets, that they try out different things before making a definitive choice, but this is simply not how it works – consumers have pre-fixed ideas about what they like – they like what they were brought up on – how else would you account for an Australian’s love of Vegemite, an American’s love of biscuits and gravy or a Brit’s predilection for warm beer?

So what kind of teachers do students like? Do they like teachers who are informative, do they like teachers who can teach? Do they even know what that actually means? Are they results oriented?

I’ve asked students and teachers – what makes a good teacher? In almost every discussion of this type there is alway one thing that is common on all lists (at least in Korea) – a sense of humour, (lower down the list are subject knowledge and good looks). But what, to a non-native English speaker is classed as humour?

In my early years as a teacher I occasionally stayed out too late on a school night and when it came time to plan my Friday afternoon class I usually stuck a Mr Bean video on (or played Scrabble). Sometimes I turned the sound down and got students to describe what was happening (but they hated that). Now, I despise Mr Bean and what his lowest common denominator comedy stands for, and sometimes half way through a Friday afternoon bout of unplanned Bean hilarity my head would feel like it was going to explode, but the students loved it; they laughed like horses when Mr Bean got locked out of his hotel room, naked, and they smiled and aaahed when he tucked Teddy in at night. Even higher level students struggled with anything more sophisticated – Fawlty Towers, The Office or even comedy gods, The Two Ronnies never got the same appreciation as Mr Bean noisily eating a sweet in church. Most students don’t have the linguistic sophistication to understand jokes in a foreign language, not to mention get “British humour”, whatever that is, so it’s a certain type of humour they want from their native English speaking teachers – a humor that doesn’t necessitate understanding English.

If a school were like a supermarket and the teachers were stacked on shelves like breakfast cereal, what kind of teacher would your average student choose? I think Mr Bean would be the most popular teacher at your school and his classes will be oversubscribed (and if you have performance related pay, he will be the most highly paid), he might not know much about the language and he might not be very well organized, but he is funny and makes students happy and feel at ease in a strange (learning) environment. In the not too distant future where students can choose their teachers and their classes to fit their busy schedules, in a world where they can’t afford to make mistakes or lose money, most students will choose the intermediate class, with a cutting edge course-book and Mr Bean as their teacher (who eats Rice Krispies for breakfast).

And they will never get to meet the slightly less funny, but very serious and dedicated teacher who listens to them and gets who they are. The teacher who wasn’t much good at the beginning of their career but who was serious enough to stay on and get better. The teacher who stays up late marking papers and who maybe has high expectations and who might tell them off when they are late. A teacher who never just shows up and bullshits his way through a lesson (because, lets face it, he is probably a man), and who never just sticks a video on in class on a Friday morning because he’s hungover.

When it comes to choice, more is often less.

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